Disordered Minds by Minette Walters

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Minette Walters has made her name with a successful modern brand of Country House Gothic, but she is too complex a writer merely to continue the formula of horrific goings-on among the gentry, and has been alternating it with original and experimental crime-writing.

Disordered Minds takes a long, hard look at the disrupted lives of the victims of prejudice and abuse: Urban Estate Gothic, perhaps, but given a certain realism by an interesting form of factoid fiction which Walters has used in previous books. The setting is the south coast in the Poole-Bournemouth area, home to one of the wealthiest communities in Europe, but also to extreme social deprivation.

There is a "cold case" at the heart of the book, the brutal murder, some 30 years previously, of an old woman who was battered to death in her home. This was apparently carried out by an abnormal grandson who committed suicide after being bullied in prison. The case is re-opened by Dr Jonathan Hughes, ananthropologist of mixed-race background who understands from his own experience what prejudice is like, and believes that the boy was wrongly convicted. "Disordered Minds" is in fact a book-within-a-book: Hughes's own work arguing the case for wrongful conviction, a section of which is "reproduced" at the start of Walters' novel. It's an economical way of introducing us to the facts of the murder.

Walters has always shunned the conventional police-series characters. Here she introduces two main personalities involved in collecting evidence. Jonathan Hughes goes further than understanding prejudice: he knows what it is to experience bullying and is forced to recognise within himself the deep shame of cowardice. He joins forces with an unlikely ally, a plump and jolly local councillor, who also believes that the grandson was innocent.

Together, they express the theme, so often found in Walters' work, of deep anger against injustice and determination to do something about it. These two dive into the case, and the story they uncover is told partly in the form of letters, newspaper cuttings and emails that have the unsettling effect of hovering between fact and fiction.

At the heart of the crime were brutal episodes of gang-rape and widespread parental abuse that went undetected at the time. How was the death of the old lady connected with a group of young teenagers: was one of the girls really raped, and if so what effect did it have on their lives? The child, Cilla, barely in her teens at the time of the multiple rape, seemed to have vanished. Was she, too, a murder victim, or has she survived under a false identity?

A mystery woman appears in different guises and the twists of the story also trace the life of the rape victim's "best friend", who witnessed the scene. The enquiry builds up into a fascinating portrait of a psychopathic personality as it emerges from a brutal and perverted background.

Walters is unsparing in giving us graphic details of the sexual cruelties perpetrated by both adults and children and the consequences that result, including a dreadful dependency created in the victims. The book gives a solution to the murder mystery, but it takes a long, cold look at humanity: even the most sympathetic characters are not exempt from Walters' clear-sighted eye and there are no easy answers.

Jane Jakeman's 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan